When a recession hits, some people throw caution to the wind to follow their passion. For Jessica Dwyer, owner of Whiskers at Home, this approach has literally multiplied for her — in kittens.
During the 2008 recession, Dwyer was a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and was laid off and unsure about her next steps.
“I was single and worried about how I was going to take care of my cats,” she said. “I kept coming back to the thought I had before moving to Washington from New York City: I just wanted to care for cats and ski. (And) people in Western Washington had more pets than kids and a lot of disposable income.”
The latter discovery led her to the National Association of Pet Sitters (NAPS) website. Dwyer started volunteering for NAPS to “get in some practical learning time,” then launched her own cat-sitting business and started reaching out to residents in Bellevue and the surrounding areas.
That was a decade ago, and now Dwyer’s business is busting at the seams.
“I got business because I was a niche market,” she said. “By (that) December, I was working seven days a week.”
Fortunately, Dwyer came into business with well-rounded skills. “The Marriott (where she once was a general manager) is driven by policies and procedures, and my business came from that,” she said, adding that she made use of the NAPS library of forms, focused on building a great website, and built a detailed daily report template. “I wanted to be able to communicate daily with how the cats were doing.”
A few months into her business, Dwyer said, a couple great things started to happen: “NAPS paid costs to go to a pet-sitting conference, and I found mentors,” she said. “In the industry, the hardest thing is knowing if you go independent contractor or employee. My mentor walked me through the process of hiring employees, and that was a whole new challenge.”
Her business never stopped growing. At the latest count, Dwyer said Whiskers at Home had 15 employees and still couldn’t cover all the demand.
Dwyer’s crew is well-known to residents and their feline friends. “Visits can be twice a day for 30 minutes or once a day for 30 to 60 minutes,” Dwyer said, adding there also are overnight and on-demand care services.
As far as aspirations, Dwyer has plans to devote herself to an expansion in Mill Creek and Bothell and is looking for qualified staff to backfill. She’s also working with a business consultant who is helping her determine viability for an education model she’s considering.
“I would love to offer classes to cat parents,” she said. “I’ve also always wanted to do kitten kindergarten or kitten camp.”
Dwyer’s advice to other business owners is simple: “Do what you love, because you’ll be doing it a lot, and just do whatever you want with it.”